Buyers Eye $25 Million Giacometti at Biggest Contemporary Fair

"Trois Hommes qui Marchent I" by Alberto Giacometti. The sculpture is for sale by the Montreal-based gallery Landau Fine Art at this year's Art Basel fair. Dating from 1948 to 1950, it is priced at $25 million. Source: Landau Fine Art via Bloomberg

A $25 million Alberto Giacometti sculpture and one of the last works by Louise Bourgeois are being eyed by collectors as the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair opens in Switzerland.

VIPs -- who in previous years have included actor Brad Pitt and billionaires Roman Abramovich and Aditya Mittal -- are browsing the 41st Art Basel from today. They can choose from 303 galleries representing 36 countries and 2,500 artists, the event’s organizers said in an e-mailed statement.

Dealers are looking to buyers from the world’s emerging economies, especially Asia, to boost sales as the market for contemporary works recovers from the biggest slump since 1991. Demand for the most coveted modern and contemporary art has increased during the last six months, thanks to new buyers.

“Basel is the place to be,” Kamel Mennour, a Paris-based dealer, said in an interview. “We’re hoping to see a new generation and a new geography of buyers. There might be only 10 collectors in Indonesia, but they will come to this event.”

The decline of the euro against the dollar and other currencies should encourage non-European buyers, said Mennour, a first-time exhibitor in the main hall of the fair.

Among the most expensive classic modern pieces will be the $25 million lifetime cast of Giacometti’s 1948 to 1950 bronze, “Trois Hommes qui Marchent I,” offered by the Montreal-based dealer Landau Fine Art. A Giacometti lifetime cast of a single walking man fetched a record 65 million pounds (then $103.4 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in London on Feb. 3.

Basel Barometer

“The money is out there. It’s just a question of where it wants to settle,” Robert Landau, gallery director, said in an interview. “Basel is the barometer of our year, even though the bulk of the interest is focused on emerging artists.”

Bourgeois’s 5-foot-high (1.5 meters) mixed-media work on paper, “A Baudelaire (#7),” produced during the last year of the New York-based artist’s life, will be priced at more than $650,000 on Brussels-based dealer Xavier Hufkens’s booth at Art Basel. Bourgeois died in May aged 98.

“Basel is a marketplace, and a place where the content of art is taken seriously,” Hufkens, a member of Art Basel’s selection committee, said in an interview. “We’ve heard from our VIP services that for the first time we’re going to see a lot of groups from Asia.” Demand in the market for contemporary art has become more focused on classic names, he said.

Last year, better-than-expected Basel sales pointed to an improvement in the market that had seen prices decline as much as 50 percent after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings in September 2008, dealers said. The 2009 event attracted a record 61,000 visitors, according a statement by the organizers.

Art Unlimited

Mennour will be showing the 2007 installation, “A chaque stencil une revolution” (With Every Stencil a Revolution), by the Moroccan conceptual artist Latifa Echakhch. The piece, previously seen at Tate Modern, consists of a room lined with thousands of pieces of blue carbon paper evoking lost copies of political statements. It will be shown at the Art Unlimited project section of the fair, priced at 15,000 euros ($18,168).

“There’s discrimination between the top and the middle,” said London-based dealer Daniella Luxembourg, who as last year will be buying at Art Basel rather than exhibiting.

“Dealers will try to bring star pieces by established names and works by younger artists, who always stir interest at Basel. It’s like the real-estate market. Luxury apartments sell, cheap apartments sell,” Luxembourg said in an interview.

Asian Buyers

Average auction prices at evening sales of contemporary works now stand at 2.9 million pounds ($4.22 million), up from 1.4 million pounds last year, according to a report published in May by the London-based research company ArtTactic. Bidders from Asia were active at Sotheby’s and Christie’s International’s auctions of Impressionist and modern art in May, when a Picasso painting sold for a record $106.5 million.

“We’ve seen buyers from Russia and Asia, though not as many Middle Eastern clients as we’d like,” said Amy Gold, a director at the New York-based dealership L & M Arts, which is asking $4.2 million for the 1952 Franz Klein abstract, “Diagonal, Black and White.” “We’re expecting interest in classic works.”

The days are over of collectors running to booths to buy works by the hottest contemporary names that could be sold two or three years later for substantial profits at auction, said dealers.

“It’s still tough for the galleries,” Todd Levin, the New York-based art adviser, said. “Prices are still down. Though dealers are selling and new buyers have entered the market, it’s not like 2006 and 2007 when they had waiting lists and they could sell shows four times over.”

Satellite Fairs

Once they’ve covered Art Basel’s two floors of booths and various project spaces, collectors will also be enticed by a variety of satellite fairs.

Volta, Scope and Liste -- “the Young Art Fair” -- and Hot Art -- Latin American -- give less established galleries the chance to show the work of the world’s emerging artists-in-waiting.

For the second year, Design Miami/Basel, situated in an exhibition hall near the contemporary-art fair, will include dealers in antique French furniture as well as specialists in modern and contemporary design.

“Many of the historic designs these galleries will show are strikingly modern while exquisitely made. They are part of a craft tradition which we are still celebrating at Design Miami,” Ambra Medda, fair director, said in an e-mailed statement.

Twelve out of the event’s 32 participating galleries, including the three showing historic works, are based in Paris.

Two years ago, the design fair was dominated by heftily priced pieces of “design art” that appealed to wealthy contemporary-art collectors. Since then, demand for limited-edition furniture by Zaha Hadid, Ron Arad and other “design artists” has cooled.

Art Basel’s main sponsor is UBS AG. The event takes place at Messe Basel, Messeplatz, 4005 Basel through June 20.


(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE